Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Pip Poodlez

Though I am somewhat aware that it exists as a cultural phenomenon, I have never really dealt much with steampunk as a scene, and wasn’t even aware it had a musical section as well. Therefore, I had few ideas on how Steam Powered Giraffe might sound prior to listening (Victorian-era style industrial?) except that I guessed (correctly) it would be some quite theatrical stuff. The band is made up of 3 members from San Diego who met while studying Theatre Arts (obviously), starting out as a pantomime act(!) and centered around the core of the Bennett twins. They dress up as three robotic characters called The Spine, Rabbit and Hatchworth, and the lyrics seem to revolve around these robots’ daily adventures and the world the band has constructed around them (including the titular giraffe). Apparently, the band has made a web comic about these robots as well, so for anyone interested; I guess it’s freely available.

In the time-honored tradition of Sgt. Pepper, the album starts by welcoming you to the show and introducing the band, before closing the show right before the end. What lies between, however is mostly folksy music with a lot of different instruments (guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and accordion), giving you that good old 19th century feeling. To the band’s credit, they manage to make the album quite diverse, both stylistically (country, old-time pop, cabaret, and mostly folk styles I don’t know the name of) in tempo and structure (many songs change considerably during its runtime) which suits the theatrical style of the album quite well. The instrumental arrangements are done quite well, with the varied use of instruments and small details helping to give the feel that the band is looking for. At many points while listening to the album, I found myself smiling because of the cheerful nature of many of the songs and the whimsical lyrics. The album is never hilariously funny, but a song like “Ice Cream Parade”, with a brilliant change halfway through the song, is quite entertaining. Also, a song like “Electricity is in My Soul” showcases a smart use of sounds, containing one of the better uses of a talk box I have heard in some time.

One of the areas that the band is really excelling in is vocal harmonies. All of their members are accomplished vocalists, and though a bit theatrical on their own, the album is filled with great vocal harmonies. Especially “Brass Goggles” (one of the highlights) features a really cool a capella section which showcase their vocal talents to the fullest. However, what this track also showcases is something that is a bit lacking in the rest of the songs, namely catchiness (it has a cool drunken chorus) and general songwriting. Most of the songs sound like they should (thanks to both good arrangements and really good production), but the songs themselves are seldom very engaging after first listen. I don’t think the concept itself is a hindrance to this, and several of the songs seem to beg for some jolly crowd-participating singing, though this seldom happens. Few of the melodies are very memorable, which is a problem since the album never really tries to reach you on a larger spiritual level. While listening to this album, I was reminded of Katzenjammer (Norwegian band), who plays similar music (no steampunk and less theatrical though), but are generally more memorable and gripping.

In the end, what saves the album, and ultimately makes it somewhat satisfying, is the execution of the concept and style of the album, which is done very professionally, especially when considering that they weren’t particularly old at the time. They already show that they know how transitions in the songs can work out, and they manage to make you feel good when listening to the music, even though the album does not stay with you for a long while. They have most of the prerequisites for making a really good album, and even if they’re not there yet, I would still conclude that this is a worthwhile listen. 

SLAPP HAPPY / HENRY COW – Desperate Straights (1975)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Tracks: Some Questions About Hats, The Owl, A Worm Is At Work, Bad Alchemy, Europa, Desperate Straights, Riding Tigers, Apes in Capes, Strayed, Giants, Excerpt From The Messiah, In The Sickbay, Caucasian Lullaby

A merger. Two bands made this album together, Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. And they were so happy with the results that they decided to merge after that. Maybe more bands should do so. The remnants of the Beatles and the Stones. A recipe for disastrous success.  I think not. It might solve a bass problem though.

Bands as corporations with a lifespan of centuries.

Prog pop. That’s the genre here, I just found out. I just found out this genre existed. So far I only knew of prog rock.

Indeed, do not expect “rock”. Slapp Happy will not “rock you” on this album. A comforting thought when it comes to prog.

The general mood on this album is reflective and cerebral. And it is very artsy.

The first song “Some questions about hats” took me to Weimar. Kurtweilland. Hanns Eislerland. German Expressionism. That sets the tone for most of the songs on this album. The music is largely staccato, with intricate signatures and unexpected melodic twists. The instruments used on these tracks are for the most part acoustic; piano, bass guitar and drums are the main instruments. The arrangements then are filled out with violins, woodwinds, trumpets and the occasional electric guitar and Wurlitzer. Dagmar Krause uses her plainsong voice in a high register and the supposedly poetic lyrics are provided by Peter Blegvad. By the way, to simply state Weimar would be incorrect as I hear different influences in these songs as well, like Canterbury style prog, (free)jazz and John Cage’ compositions for piano, prepared or raw.

I’ll categorize these tracks as avant-garde Weimar chamber pop. In them on first hearing everything sounded a bit askew but once I got used to the sound I found these generally short pieces quite beautiful in an offbeat way. Slapp Happy / Henry Cow obviously knew what they were doing without the apparent urge to impress with prowess. In fact, overall the record sounds quite lean. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an influence on the more melodic post-punk experimentalists like Tuxedomoon and Minimal Compact and even nineties alternative rock acts like dEUS and Tindersticks. It must be my imagination but sometimes the violin parts even remind me of those in “Different Trains” by Steve Reich.

All the non-instrumental tracks, bar one, are sung by Dagmar Krause. Her voice took me some time to get used to. It is more in the European classical / cabaret style than pop/rock. She has a funny german accent and I can easily imagine her singing the “Dreigrosschenoper”. At times though she sounds shrill and quivering, especially in the high register. Witchy and childish at times. On first hearing “Some questions about hats” I thought: “well, surely this must be the wicked witch from the East”. However for the most part she sounds quite pleasant even if she’s no Lotte Lenya. On the contrary in  “Excerpt From The Messiah” she even sounds like Yoko Ono, complete with Onowarblings. Not that I mind one bit, of course.

Not all songs live in Weimar however and there are four that sound quite differently. The title track is a beautiful piano dominated instrumental that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late sixties Beach Boys album. “Strayed” is a poppy, clean guitar driven song, sung by Peter Blegvad, that on first hearing sounds quite conventional until you realize it is actually a bossa nova and could well have been produced in the nineties by let’s say Cake. The aforementioned “Excerpt From The Messiah” (a Händel cover, no less) is the most rockist track complete with distorted electric guitars. Still this is no shit that stinks. It has a great line though: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting”. I suppose that’s about Jesus Christ. Finally the last track consists almost entirely  of slowly ascending lonely notes on the piano and woodwinds without reaching a conclusion. This is music of lonesome foghorns that blow, solitary walks through deserted industrial wastelands and fortified coastal regions or as in my case bicycle rides in the rain through the polder with windmills and pumping stations at night. It works. Spooky.

Do I know some people who would hate this album? Yes I do. Those who do not like art in their music and they are legion. In fact, I intend to use this album to evacuate my birthday party  in December.

It’s a good album though and quite unlike any other I heard so far. If you are exhausted by Zarah Leander, Suzi Quatro, Li’l Kim and Amanda Lear you need this album. Even if it might take you some effort. That’s okay. I do not approve of laziness.

Oh, so  do I like it? I do, even if at times it’s a bit too cerebral to actually love. It is good. This is paletti. Pico bello. Sombrero!

Favorite tracks: “The Owl”, “A Worm Is At Work”, “Desperate Straights”, “Strayed” and “Caucasian Lullaby”.

KOOP – Waltz for Koop (2001)

Review by: Jake Myers
Album assigned by: Jared Walske

Is any of this actually a waltz?  I mean, the rhythms feel pretty jazzy, but that classification just seems like a cop-out when there is so much more going on here.  Suffice it to say that such an intriguing fusion of jazz, world music, and electronic stylings is enough to interest a relative Philistine like me.  I know nothing about any of those genres, though, so pardon the myriad of ignorant comments I am bound to unwittingly make.
There is not a striking amount of variety on this album, but that’s only a problem when you have a hard time making it from the first song to the last without breaks.  No, this one actually benefits from the more subtle variations in its sound.  The consistency allows the album to flow as an unbroken stream of thought and feeling.  And that feeling, I’d say, is the feeling of lying back in a classy bar in some exotic land, maybe indulging in some slow and easy sort of hedonism, while still able to contemplate the deepest metaphysical musings of the guru across the room.
There are some really groovy segments, like the flute breakdowns in “Baby”, that are sure to remind the prog aficionados such as myself of similarly great moments in the Jethro Tull and early King Crimson catalogues.  There are the lazy numbers like “Modal Mile”, which remind me a lot of Soul Coughing—hell, the vocalist even sounds kinda like Mike Doughty.  And check out how in “Relaxing at Club Fusion”, they manage to marry a modern electronic beat with the smooth classic wandering of that saxophone, all with those minimalist verses drifting in and out.  Subtleties, again, but how rewarding those can be.
The prize has to go to “Summer Sun”, though.  That bouncy, carefree, yet knowing melody really is something else, and it’s wonderfully strange how a song (and an album, for that matter) can sound like both the past and the future at the same time.       8/10


Review by: Jeremiah Methven
Album assigned by: David Sheehan

I largely agree with George’s review on his old site of Per Un Amico – I’m new to this band, but I certainly hear elements of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, ELP… all the prog rock greats. And to PFM’s credit, they don’t sound out of place next to those bands, showing a knack for keeping their songs interesting. Maybe because it’s largely instrumental (and when they do sing, it’s in Italian) but I have a hard time remembering which song is which after the album’s over, even after five listens. It speaks to the constant movement between themes, though I might also consider it a slight flaw in some regards. But at least with the first three tracks (slightly less so with the last two, which I find a bit more meandering), it’s all pretty great and entertaining. It doesn’t quite move me the way some of the aforementioned groups can – so I wouldn’t rate it as a masterpiece. But it’s definitely a strong album and well worth hearing for any prog aficionados. 8/10

PETER TOSH – Equal Rights (1977)

Review by: Eric Pember
Album assigned by: Syd Spence

This is one of the pioneers of reggae at his creative peak. There’s absolutely no way this isn’t good, unless you just can’t stand reggae at all. I’ve been steadily building up on passive music over the past little while, and this is a pretty nice addition to that. A choice cut to listen to is “Stepping Razor”.

MAGAZINE – The Correct Use Of Soap (1980)

Review by: Charly Saenz
Album assigned by: Jonathan Moss

A great surprise! Indeed I confirm here that early 80s, late 70s (78-82 approximately) is a territory worth investigating.

Magazine’s only album I listened to so far has really managed to capture me. It’s infectious pop and then something, which is exactly what you may expect for this adorable era – a gray area of Power pop/Post-punk/New wave. I felt that this music has aged well, it’s dynamic and concise and there are little details here and there that I enjoyed. 

“Because you’re frightened” starts out the album with a more edgy side (and a fantastic guitar riff) but then “Model worker” is such a perfect blueprint for some of the best pop I’ve listened (later!) in the 80s – that I can’t begin to describe it. Great single material.

“I Want To Burn Again”, a slow acoustic beginning, and then these eighties keyboards used wisely (that great bass is always on top), and the background vocals add colour instead of being predictable; before the end an out-of-nowhere guitar solo to complete another perfect pop bubble.
“A Song From Under The Floorboards” is probably my favourite of the lot, the keyboards and the bass lines really work their best here but the whole group really creates a little pop gem.

“You never knew me” is another great find, with its slow pace and a great vocal delivery from Devoto (and of course some quite direct lyrics) 
“I’m a Party” works too as its title indicates with an upbeat poppy mood (though still somehow punky), and those female background vocals which are a little odd.. Until the 3:00 mark where there’s a nice break until we get back to the original song. Fantastic.

“Sweetheart contract” pushes forward with its slightly psychedelic main keyboard riff (and a dangling guitar playing in the back). Great fun. Didn’t care much for “Stuck” (more funky) or “Thank You” (a cover) though on more listens who knows. 

A great great album for those like me who like pop/synth pop, but with a punk/rockier edge.